Computer glitch led to Mars Global Surveyor's demise

Internal review blames orbiter crash on computer coding errors

Computer coding errors apparently caused the loss of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) orbiter spacecraft last year.

That was the conclusion of a launched in November 1996 and started its Mars orbit the following September as part of what became a nearly 10-year-long scientific survey.

The MGS mapped the surface and atmosphere of Mars, provided extensive images of the planet and even assisted in locating a landing spot for other spacecraft. Its last communication with Earth was on Nov. 2, after the orbiter was ordered to perform a routine adjustment of its solar panels. It responded by reporting a series of alarms, then indicated it had stabilized itself. That was its final message to Earth.

NASA assumed that within 11 hours of that transmission, depleted batteries had left the craft unable to control its orientation in the Mars orbit. On Jan. 28, the MGS was declared lost and efforts to recover it ended.

On April 13, the agency announced that the most likely cause of the failure was coding related. "The loss of the spacecraft was the result of a series of events linked to a computer error made five months before the likely battery failure," Dolly Perkins, the internal review board chairwoman, said in a statement. Perkins is also deputy director-technical of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Her committee, charged with both finding out what happened and how to prevent similar losses in the future, issued a technical report on the incident.

According to the report, the malfunction resulted from faulty code uploaded to the MGS in June 2006. During a software upgrade to the MGS command system, performance settings were sent to the wrong computer memory addresses on the spacecraft. This caused the Nov. 2 malfunction when, after being unable to properly control the adjustment of its solar panels, the MGS went into contingency mode. In doing so, erroneous data led it to orient itself so that one of its two batteries was exposed to direct sunlight.

The spacecraft's power management program interpreted the overheating of the battery as an overcharge and prevented it from recharging. The other battery was unable to recharge adequately and they both eventually were drained of power. Another software error repositioned an antenna, cutting off contact with Earth and leaving ground control personnel in the dark about the MGS's thermal and power problems.

As the report noted, this was caused in part by a design error. "The onboard fault protection was insufficient to handle the faults that were most likely encountered. The spacecraft mistakenly determined that a solar array was stuck and, based on this information, went to an altitude that was thermally unsafe for one of its batteries."

The space agency later boasted that the mission lasted four times longer than expected, with the MGS proving to be the most valuable of all spacecraft sent to the red planet.

"Mars Global Surveyor has surpassed all expectations," Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration, said in a Nov. 21 statement after contact with the craft was lost. "It has already been the most productive science mission to Mars, and it will yield more discoveries as the treasury of observations it has made continues to be analyzed for years to come."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Marc L. Songini

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?